Video: Toxic fuel a concern from stalled Russian rocket

  1. Transcript of: Toxic fuel a concern from stalled Russian rocket

    MADDOW: Moscow , we have a problem. I don't mean to be alarming but right now there is a Russian rocket circling the earth loaded with roughly 11 tons of toxic fuel called nitrogen titroxide and hydrozen. The spacecraft is called Phobos-Grunt . Phobos for the Martian moon, this thing is supposed to be flying to, and Grunt is the Russian word for ground or soil or dirt, which is a probe that is on top of the big dumb rocket was to scoop this up and bring back once it got to Mar's moon. It doesn't look like it's getting to mars' moon. Phobos-Grunt right now is falling, slowly but inexorably back down towards earth, as it had since Tuesday when shortly after lift up, the rocket's booster engines failed to fire. The booster engines were supposed to send this thing out of the earth's atmosphere to get up all the way to mars' moon and the engines were going to use all of the hydrazine. They were going to burn it up as fuel, to go all the way to mars. This is video purportedly shot in Brazil on Tuesday, right about the time the first engine was supposed to fire. That little dot is the rocket doing what is it not supposed to be doing. The reason people in Brazil were even looking for the Phobos-Grunt at the time is that the Russian space program crowd sourced the launch. Instead of sending a reconnaissance ship to South America to monitor the rocket's progress, they decided to just save the expense and asked amateur sky watchers to help them out. The last time Russia tried a deep space mission, it really didn't work out then either.

    ANNOUNCER: This is NBC News at sunrise with Linda Vester .

    LINDA VESTER, NBC NEWS: Good morning, everyone. The world of science and nation of Russia have suffered a setback. The mission to explore the planet mars have come to an end in the south Pacific . Last night, pieces of a probe have fell back to earth, plunging into the ocean about 900 miles southeast of Easter Island and some 1,800 miles northwest of Santiago , Chile . The spacecraft lifted up from its base in Kazakhstan on Saturday, carrying two devices designed to land on mars. But one of the rocket booster failed to ignite properly. Ground controllers lost contact, and the rocket got stuck in earth's orbit.

    MADDOW: As you can tell from the hairdo, it was in 1996 . What's happening now is kind of amazingly similar. At least this one does not have any plutonium onboard, like the last one they crashed. This one, it's just tons and tons and tons of toxic rocket fuel . You can be one of the work for free amateur space trackers of this thing, of the Phobos-Grunt , if you want to be. According to the live track online, it is somewhere west of Indonesia , vaguely. My eyes are not good enough to tell. Well, west of Australia , yes. While it is still up there, the Russian rocket scientists do have time to figure out what the problem is and maybe fix it, but they probably have a few days left before its batteries die. Mission controllers say they have a few attempts to send commands to rockets to fire those booster engines and get this thing fired toward that mars moon, but so far not, which means tons of hydrazine and nitrogen titroxide may be heading back home to earth one of these days in a rather uncontrolled fashion. Today, I learned the phrase bozhe moi. I think that's how you say it. Bozhe moi, correct me on this. But as far as I know, that's Russian for OMG .

By
updated 11/10/2011 2:17:11 PM ET 2011-11-10T19:17:11

As Russia's space agency struggled Thursday to fix a probe bound for a moon of Mars that instead got stuck in Earth's orbit, some experts said the chances of saving the $170 million craft looked slim.

Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov said efforts to communicate with the unmanned Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-Ground) spacecraft hadn't brought any results yet. The probe will come crashing down in a couple of weeks if engineers fail to fix the problem.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

The Phobos-Grunt was launched Wednesday and reached preliminary orbit, but its engines never fired to send it off to the Red Planet. Kuznetsov said controllers on Thursday will continue attempts to fix the probe's engines to steer it to its path to one of Mars' two moons, Phobos.

Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin said the system that keeps the spacecraft pointed in the right direction may have failed. Other space experts suggested that the craft's computer failure was a likely cause.

If a software flaw was the problem, scientists may be able to fix it by sending new commands. Some experts think, however, that the failure was rooted in hardware and will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fix.

"I think we have lost the Phobos-Grunt," Vladimir Uvarov, a former top space expert at the Russian Defense Ministry, said in an interview published Thursday in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta. "It looks like a serious flaw. The past experience shows that efforts to make the engines work will likely fail."

Complicating the recovery efforts, the space agency only has a few hours a day to reach the probe due to Russia's limited earth-to-space communications network. Kuznetsov said new attempts to contact the craft will be made Thursday evening.

The spacecraft is 13.2 metric tons (14.6 tons), and most of that weight, about 11 metric tons (12 tons), is highly toxic fuel.

Most experts believe the fuel will likely stay liquid if the probe comes down and would harmlessly blow up about 50 miles (80 kilometers) above ground, but some fear it may freeze, survive the fiery re-entry and make impact.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

loading photos...
  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. AURA / STSCI / NASA
    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments